The Cancer Diaries, Part 6

I’m sitting here, on my back deck, in the late Friday afternoon, beside Susan, trying to take stock of my life over a glass of wine, and read a bit while the light’s still good. I’m 30 days past my surgery and recovering reasonably well, but still three weeks away from my next set of tests, and almost four until I sit down with the urologist and learn if I still have cancer. And what happens next. All the rest of my life is on hold until that meeting.

My father lived to 92, and died of esophageal cancer, caught too late. He might have lived longer, otherwise, although he also had prostate cancer that might have caught up with him instead.  It was a horrible death, one that I also saw take my dear friend, Bill, many years later (fall, 2019). My mother died at 95, living long despite her stroke in 1960. Her father died at 94. I always thought I’d live into my 90s. My genes promised it. But of late, I am not sure I’ll even see 75. My father’s mother also lived into her old age, but his father died younger than her of prostate cancer. Maybe I have his genes.

Sure there may be treatment: radiation and chemotherapy, neither of which is appealling. They have nasty side effects. To what end do I go for treatment if it involves a steady decrease in the quality of life and only saves me a short snippet of time? It’s a bit like the Roadrunner and Coyote cartoons. Cancer is the Roadrunner that the Coyote never catches, and gets himself blown up in the process of trying. Sometimes I think of it like the Red Queen’s Race in Alice in Wonderland: you run as fast as you can simply to stay in the same place. I can’t even make up my mind about how I see it  until that next meeting.

I sit here with a pile of books beside me, trying to read as much as I can to get through all the to-be-read stacks that litter my house. Every day I sit outside with a small stack, sometimes the same books, often changing one or two. Never less than six, never more than ten, each with a bookmark to guide me back the next time I pick it up. There’s a pile or two beside the bed for my nighttime reading, too. Sometimes I augment them with books from my daytime reading.

I don’t know why it matters, but I just don’t want my life to end with so many unread books. Will I ever finish reading Proust? Or Casanova’s diaries? Will I even get to read the latest Murakami, so recently received? I keep wanting to re-read Chandler’s Campaigns of Napoleon, a tough enough task should I live to 90. Now it seems so much further from my grasp. I’m pretty sure I’ll never learn to read Latin, either, despite the shelf of textbooks to teach me.

Last year I read Will Schwalbe’s book, The End of Your Life Book Club. In it, he and his dying mother form a “club” to share and compare how they felt reading the same books together. She had cancer and they spent many hours in waiting rooms, in hospitals, in her palliative bedroom discussing their books. His book is a combination of her story, his, and their views on literature, and about shared memories. It’s very touching. I didn’t really appreciate it as much when I read it as I do now.

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The Cancer Diaries Part 1

I should have started this a while ago. Perhaps when I received the first news something as wrong. But it took a while to really sink in. And then it was upon me. Although this is personal, I wanted to share it, in the hope others might find it useful.

There’s a psychological process called the Kübler-Ross model, or the Five Stages of Grief, which is often applied to cancer and other diseases, but at least for me, it didn’t work that way. Her stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. But for me, the first thing was a sense of betrayal.

Yes, betrayal: how can my body let me down like this? I have treated it well for all these decades – okay, not I haven’t been worshipful, but reasonably respectful. I haven’t smoked or eaten mammals for almost 50 years, and I watch what I eat and drink (little junk or processed foods). I don’t drink alcohol to excess, don’t drink liquid sugar (aka soda pop), don’t do drugs. I walk a lot – several kilometers a day usually – and keep my mind active. I keep my teeth in good condition and get a checkup annually. Surely all that should have counted for something.

But the tests don’t lie. My PSA was elevated. Frighteningly so. My body, or at least on part of it, betrayed me.

Not that I really should have been surprised. My father and his father both had prostate cancer. I am third generation and the likelihood of me getting it has always been very high if not a certainty. In hindsight, I wish I could have spoken to my father about it, sought his wisdom, but by the time I learned of it, he was already dying of another cancer.

I had a warning about it several years back when I had non-cancerous prostate problems and minor corrective surgery. I didn’t go through denial after that, or any of the stages as I recall, just hoped it had cured the problem. After all, modern medicine cures so much else.

Apparently not everything.

After betrayal came resignation. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
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The last walk

Sophie and Bella in the snow“You have to go to the pound. They have a Sheltie there.” Susan called me from work, her voice urgent. One of her clients had told her a Sheltie – Shetland Sheepdog – had been picked up by Animal Control and was in the pound, on Stewart Road about to come up for adoption. She added, “I already have a name for her.”

This was in the late spring of 2008. It had been a couple of years since we had a dog and she knew I missed having one. We had had some great dogs in the past, including a purebred blue merle Sheltie called Wellington. Wellie for short. A beautiful, well mannered, smart and affectionate dog. Robust, working dog type of Sheltie, not one of those overbred scrawny things you see around too often. Wellie was lovely, but died of cancer too soon. It broke our hearts.

But we’d also had some bad luck.The two most recent dogs – a Papillon named Katy and a Corgi named Topper – had been neurotic and difficult. While Katy – a former breeding dog we got at age 6 or 7 – was merely timid. Topper was crazy. Severe separation anxiety made him destroy everything in his presence if we weren’t there to oversee his every minute. Katy lived out her natural life with us, loved for all her strangeness. Topper we had to return to the breeder after a frustrating year trying every tactic and therapy: he chewed up one couch, one chair, one pillow, one pair of shoes, one baseboard, too many. I didn’t think Susan would ever allow us to get another after that.

So we just had cats. I love my cats, but I missed having a dog underfoot, interacting with me. Susan knew it. I missed the companionship, the walks, the unquestioning loyalty and affection of a dog. She liked dogs, but prefers cats, and didn’t really want another dog. Yet she knew how much it meant to me. Her call came as a delightful surprise.

I left the store and drove over to the pound. There she was: a beautiful, tri-colour dog. Long hair, great ruff. Not a Sheltie, though. Close, but too big for one, even for the likes of Wellie. Maybe part. Too small for a Collie. More likely a mix. Calm, a little scared, but she let me check her out, just sat and watched me every moment. Patient. An adult, apparently a mother at least once. I liked her, but it’s not the sort of decision you make alone.

Sophie, Nov. 2008The dog, I was told, had been abandoned, right here in town. The family who owned her moved, and left her tied to a tree. A couple of days later, neighbours called animal control. She was in a kennel with another dog – a bigger, playful, somewhat loopy Shepherd cross who wanted my attention and kept pushing in between us. But I only had eyes for the Sheltie cross. She was beautiful.

I arranged for the officer to hold her until the evening when Susan could join me. As soon as she saw the dog, Susan was in love with her. Sophie, she called her. We never regretted it for a moment after.
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Will You Still Need Me, Will You Still Feed Me…

When I'm 64 on the ukeTurning 64, as in the 1967 Beatles’ song, once seemed so distant that it it was as remote as flying cars and jet packs. By the time I reached that age, I thought, we’d have a moon base colony, orbiting hotels as in 2001, A Space Odyssey, and were reaching out to the planets. Maybe even a base on Mars by then

None of which had happened, of course, by the time I reached the magical age in the song, and even today it looks remote. But back then, in the late Sixties, the years ahead seemed so full of potential and excitement that anything was possible. What dreams we had. Too bad our politicians didn’t share them.

I always wondered, hearing the song, why the singer was afraid that his partner, his lover, would abandon him. “Will you still need me/Will you still feed me/When I’m 64?” Was she about to toss him into the street, replace him with a new model (insert your favourite Donald Trump-trophy wife quip here…)?

Sixty four passed me without any such concern.

To be honest, I never thought I’d even reach that age. When you’re 17, you can’t imagine being almost 50 years older. Any more than I can today imagine being 30 years older and doddering about in my nineties. An age to which I fully expect to reach if for no other reason that it may take me that long to finally read all of Ulysses.

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Goodbye, Cleo

CleoCleo was an accidental member of the family. Twelve to fifteen years ago – long enough that the exact date is hazy in my mind – she came to us. Well, she was delivered, actually. And yesterday she left us.

One late winter day, back then, I was at home, getting ready to go to the shop, when a woman from the Georgian Bay Animal Rescue group showed up with a carrying case. We are in desperate need of some foster homes, she said. Short term, just until we find a more permanent home. It’s just one cat. She won’t be any bother. Can you help us?

What could I say but yes? We’ve always been a sucker for cats, and usually had three or four in the house – and had seen as many as seven living with us. All foster care, rescues, strays or adoptions.

Cleo, as we later called her, was a stumpy, compact little black female. She had been found up on Blue Mountain, under a porch, freezing in the snow and ice that bitterly cold winter. She had had a litter of kittens, which had all died in the cold. She was feral, but they had spayed her, vaccinated her. She was just a little shy, the woman added.

Little shy? She was terrified of humans. She darted out of the crate into the basement where she vanished. I didn’t even get a good look at her. We didn’t see her for weeks. We had other cats, and two dogs, so we couldn’t be sure if she was even eating the food we put out every day.

Finally, we started to get worried. A feral cat wouldn’t be house-smart, and might find her way into a wall, or somewhere she couldn’t escape. We were pretty sure she’d never even seen stairs before our home. Where was she?

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